The Corrections union is warning the new Government to urgently sort out a growing staffing “crisis” with hundreds of vacancies as stricter approaches to justice are estimated to dramatically increase the prison population.
It comes as the country’s prison population starts to rise again, jumping by more than 10 per cent, or nearly 1000 prisoners, in the year to September - way ahead of Ministry of Justice projections, after a dramatic reduction of nearly 30 per cent during the previous Labour Government.
This rapid increase in the final year under Labour has caused major concerns among staff, with the use of double bunking starting to increase again - with 36 per cent of prisoners now double-bunked, up from 28 per cent in October 2021.
Corrections is currently short just under 370 full-time staff, with likely hundreds more needed to cater for further increases in the prison population. Corrections employed just over 3600 people as of October.
All three coalition parties of National, Act and NZ First campaigned on what they deemed “tougher” approaches to crime, including in sentencing, which they estimated would see the prison population increase.
National has allocated $718m over four years for an extra 1400 prisoners, while Act has allocated about $1.1 billion to cater for 2094 prisoners, with another $1b to build an extra 500 beds.
Act’s coalition agreement with National simply says they have agreed to ensure there is “sufficient prison capacity as required”.
According to Corrections, at the end of October there were 9045 people across 18 prison sites. The prison network has more than 11,000 beds.
But due to the staffing shortages, just 9256 beds are currently available.
National Commissioner Leigh Marsh told the Herald to deal with the current increase they were opening additional capacity, changing staff rosters and reconfiguring the prison populations.
They could also pause some activities or reduce the time prisoners spent unlocked.
Marsh said since October last year their recruitment drive had employed 826 people into Corrections officer roles, with many more “in the pipeline”.
They were also building a new facility at Waikeria Prison with another 500 beds, and 96 beds reserved for those with mental health and addiction needs.
Corrections Association president Floyd du Plessis said while there had been more recruitment, this was only just keeping up with attrition.
The union had just been through negotiations about pay and reached a settlement, avoiding the need for strike action.
But du Plessis said due to the current “muster crisis” many staff were struggling and they were calling for further support, including an additional allowance for the increased work hours and stress.
“It is a massive concern. We’re sitting with a record low number of staff and with a [prison] muster that’s rapidly increasing each day.
“The additional work is going up every week and there’s no recognition or reward for the additional amount of work staff have to do to make it work.”
He said staff were working 12-hour shifts and running multiple units a day.
“It’s high pace, high stress. And that’s an environment that’s not designed to easily function and operate.”
He said there needed to be better training and better support and also pay that truly reflected the work they were doing.
Corrections was on the immigration green list but the Government had to make it more attractive than countries like Australia, where officers can get up to 40 per cent higher wages.
Du Plessis said they were optimistic about the new Government’s approach.
“The idea of having stronger punishment for negative behaviour or criminal behaviour, is something that we do agree with.
“But dealing with any increase is a massive concern for us [given staffing issues].”
Corrections Minister Mark Mitchell said he was well aware of the staffing issues and addressing them, along with safety and welfare, would be a focus for him.
“Corrections has invested heavily in recruitment advertising, and that will have to continue.
“We have to make it a job that’s attractive for people with career pathways.
“The first thing we have to do is we have to make it a safe job. That will attract people to want to come into the service.”
Mitchell said he had not been briefed on an extra allowance given the current concerns but would look into it.
On their ultimate plans, Mitchell said he couldn’t say exactly how many more prisoners there would be nor how much it would cost, only that it would increase.
“But there’s got to be consequences around the serious violent offending.”
The new Government was also committed to addressing the growing remand population and improving access to rehabilitation, Mitchell said.
Green Party corrections spokeswoman Tamatha Paul said the solution was not to “pack our prisons like sardines”.
“Our prisons are overcrowded as it is and half of the people in there haven’t even been sentenced. These are not environments that encourage rehabilitation or the support that is needed for our communities to be safe.”